It never ceases to surprise me that Britain is both large and small at the same time. It’s like a magic box. Some journeys are interminably long and complicated. But then there are times when you can go from London to an entirely different city for lunch, then be back in London in time for cocktail hour.
Such was our experience when we were invited to lunch with writers Jill Patton Walsh and John Rowe Townsend in their home in Cambridge. Tim has known Jill and John for years and I was very much looking forward to meeting them and to seeing Cambridge.
As a North American who grew up at a time when educational systems were under scrutiny (when I was a teenager I propped “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman, on my desk as a flag to my decidedly out of date high school teachers), it is hard for me to understand how generations of people in the UK are affected by their university status. Getting into Oxford or Cambridge is the single most determining factor for the outcome of a life. That’s not to say that all Oxbridge grads are successful or happy. Only that the experience will mark (and some say mar) them for life.
Cambridge is an exquisitely beautiful city with the university at the heart of everything. College after college proudly declares its noble patrons. Inner quads are immaculately kept.
Shops in the city centre are exquisitely tasteful, filled with expensive clothing, jewelry, handcrafted shoes and gifts one imagines visiting parents purchase.
History, and privilege is everywhere, as is the craftsmanship that creates these buildings, carvings and ornaments. But there is also a marvelous eccentricity about it all.
Walking through a peaceful path in Magdalene College, we came upon a few tiny, tasteful, carved memorials. A late 19th century graveyard for beloved pets.
Gargoyles, faces and impressive statues watch you from every angle of every building.
The streets are cobbled and cut off to car traffic. Thousands of bikes are chained up outside of the colleges and students whizz past, scarves identifying their colleges flying in the wind. They rule the road and low betide anyone stepping off the curb.
Is it any wonder that these young students feel and behave in an elitist fashion? That the city exudes a rarified atmosphere guaranteed to make us mere mortals envious? It is the epitome of a combination of wealth, intellectualism, beauty and youth. All we could do was to watch it all go by, and feel like somewhat lesser humans.
But then we went to visit Jill and John, in a house that overlooks the river. They are as marvelous as Tim had led me to believe. It was a fabulous visit that blended politics, children’s literature and food. Salmon with wild rice, followed by a delicious apple tart (When I asked Jill about the apples she replied, “I always use Bambery apples when I can. They are perfect for apple tart”) and local chesses, including a particularly scrumptious Wesleydale with apricots. All enhanced by a delicious white burgundy supplied by their wine club.
We may not be a part of the Cambridge “set”, but for one lovely afternoon, we were fully welcomed and at home there.